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Globalization: A Secret Weapon for Feminists
by Jessica Neuwirth

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

You walk into The Gap and spy a great pair of jeans. The price is right, but you notice the label saying Made in Guatemala, or Made in Indonesia. Your conscience kicks in and you feel a little queasy, thinking of the inhuman conditions of sweatshop labor you're likely supporting when you buy the jeans.

That's a globalization moment.

You go home, log on to the computer and find an e-mail about the latest woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in Pakistan or Nigeria. At the www.feminist.com website, you find a petition of protest signed by individuals and organizations in countries around the world--Brazil to Norway, Singapore to Zimbabwe--all in the past twenty-four hours. You add your name to the petition and forward it to everyone on your address list.

That, too, is globalization.

In a corporate context, "globalization" is a positive word because it has meant more profits and more power. In a political context, "globalization" is a challenging word because it has been difficult to control in the context of traditional political power structures. In the international Women's Movement, "globalization" is a negative word because it has brought great harm to many women--by facilitating the systematic exploitation of women as a source of cheap domestic and migrant labor, for example, and accelerating the international operation of organized crime, drastically increasing the trade in women and girls for various forms of commercial sexual exploitation. For these reasons, globalization has been largely demonized by the Women's Movement and perceived as a force only to be opposed.

At the core of globalization is a communications-technology revolution that has tremendous power and potential. This revolution is neither inherently good nor bad. It's a powerful catalyst that magnifies both good and bad, depending on how it is used, by whom, and to what end. To oppose globalization is an exercise in futility. This is a force moving inexorably forward; it will not be stopped. To denounce it categorically is a miscalculation in political judgement, in part but not only because such a denunciation is a strategic dead-end. Although to date globalization has magnified the power differentials that subordinate women, it also creates an urgent need for fundamental political reform, and thus represents an opportunity to reorder the world in a way that serves humanity--and particularly the female majority of humanity--better.

By stealth, globalization has already changed the balance and distribution of power. Governments still struggle to get their bureaucracies on-line, while heavily resourced transnational corporations are using the same technology to run circles around controls that have been in place (at least theoretically) for regulating corporate conduct and curbing abuses. Governments can't keep up with the Internet. Everything from hate speech to bodily organs is being sold through the worldwide web, despite prohibitive laws in various countries. Like the Internet, globalization knows no boundaries--and any controls, to be effective, must likewise transcend the national boundaries that have historically marked the exercise of sovereign state power.

If, though, the nation state as a fundamental building block of political power has been so quickly outmoded, there is no alternative political structure to take its place. Treaties and other international legal mechanisms rely largely on such inter-governmental structures as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization. These structures are as clumsy in the new age of globalization as the governments that comprise and underlie them. The steadfast refusal by governments to relinquish or allow derogation from national sovereignty has left international institutions bereft of power, so that even the most compelling joint public initiatives--to, for instance, reduce arms, protect the environment, or regulate transnational corporate conduct--lack effective enforcement mechanisms. Meanwhile, through the forces of globalization, the power of national sovereignty is increasingly illusory, and governments are less able to control corporations because, unlike corporations, their powers end at the border.

Operating largely outside the scope of international law, corporations have their own code of conduct. Unlike governments--which are at least in theory based on popular will and purportedly representative of public interest--corporations don't represent anyone other than themselves. They are accountable only to shareholders. The measure of their value and success is in numbers: net worth and gross profits. There is no place for the common good to be factored into decisions, even theoretically, since the shareholder structure is designed for a narrow economic purpose that doesn't encompass social and political goals. As the impact of corporate conduct on a global level becomes greater and also less subject to external control, the real danger is that the growing influence of transnational money and power in all aspects of life will be regulated only by the corporate mandate to maximize profits. While some companies have adopted their own rules and regulations in the rhetorical framework of social responsibility, ultimate control over these rules and regulations is not in the public domain. A cost-benefit analysis of policies relating to such lucrative endeavors as the sale of kidneys for transplant, or women for sexual exploitation, might come out very differently in a corporate boardroom than in a legislative process.

If globalization is a magnifier, what it has magnified to date is the status quo, including much good as well as much harm. For the Women's Movement, globalization has brought to life a previously unimaginable capacity to organize across continents and mobilize international solidarity on a moment's notice. Connections made and strengthened among women and organizations at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing have continued since that conference, and the Internet has created a more effective and more permanent networking capacity. Action alert campaigns to protect women from being stoned, flogged, and mutilated have been exponentially amplified through the use of e-mail, as have interventions demanding justice for women who have been raped, beaten, or killed with impunity. On-line campaigns--protesting the systematic destruction of women through gender apartheid in Afghanistan, the failure of the Vatican to address the sexual violation of nuns by priests, and the detrimental role played by UN peacekeeping missions in promoting prostitution and trafficking--have raised awareness of these issues and generated public pressure to stop human-rights violations against women.

Women have also, via the Internet, had an increasingly active voice in such international fora as the United Nations. Amplified calls from across the globe for greater representation of women have led to an active exchange of ideas: for affirmative action at national levels, and for concerted international campaigns toward including women at the highest tiers of decision-making in inter-governmental organizations. These efforts have resulted in concrete positive results. It's not a coincidence that the two most significant judgments on sexual violence of the ad hoc international criminal tribunals (established by the UN for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda) were delivered, respectively, by trial chambers that included a woman judge--in the case of the Rwanda Tribunal the only woman judge, and in the case of the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia one of two women judges, the other of whom was subsequently replaced by a man. As a result of effective advocacy by the Women's Movement, the formative documents for the newly created International Criminal Court explicitly call for gender representation in the judiciary, and explicitly include crimes of sexual violence.

Globalization has also furthered the concept of international and transnational criminal justice, so that ruthless dictators and genocidal maniacs can be held accountable. In June of 2001, a jury in Belgium found two Rwandans criminally guilty of genocide for their complicity in the killing of thousands of Tutsis--a milestone in international law, since this was the first time that a jury of ordinary citizens of one country had been asked to judge people accused of war crimes committed in another country. In August of 2000, a jury of citizens in the U.S. found Radovan Karadzic civilly liable for the genocidal rape of women in the former Yugoslavia. These are historic decisions that affirm human rights as transcendent of national boundaries. In this new vision of justice without borders, women have been able to raise (if not yet ensure) the importance of including sexual violence among other human-rights violations to be addressed. Similarly, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and denial of reproductive rights are increasingly being recognized by national legal systems as gender-based forms of persecution that fall within the scope of refugee protection.

Globalization has also focused world attention more systematically on efforts to end armed conflict. Not only national and regional conflicts but internal warfare has become a legitimate subject of international concern and often intervention. In this context, the potential for women to play significant roles in peace negotiations looms on the horizon. In October of 2000, the UN held an unprecedented session of the Security Council to listen to women from such war-torn countries as Somalia and Guatemala, and to consider the contribution women have been trying to make to the pursuit of world peace. This process resulted in the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women and Peace and Security, calling for the inclusion of more women in peace negotiations and peacekeeping forces. The power or potential power of women is also being increasingly recognized in traditional mainstream structures like the World Bank, which has finally been forced to acknowledge the central role of women in the promotion of sustainable development.

However, the communications technology that has fueled this progress and helped the Women's Movement get the message across to these powerful institutions has not been equally accessible to all. Far from it. And just as globalization on a larger scale has made the powerful relatively more powerful, within the universe of movements for social change, it has also in some ways widened the gap--of differential access to resources--between groups and individuals in the global North and those in the global South. In countries where telephone service and electricity are unreliable, or in villages where neither is even available, the new power of globalization is ruthlessly leaving some women behind while rapidly propelling others forward. Computers are expensive, as is access to the Internet in many countries. Moreover, literacy must precede computer training, and efforts to ensure women and girls access to basic education are massively underfunded. Two-thirds of the world's illiterate population are women; almost 300 million women cannot read or write. Still, for those who do have access to electronic communication, globalization has played a positive role. Women of the South now have a greater voice in the Women's Movement, in part due to greater access to information and a considerably enhanced ability to participate in a global dialogue less hostage to distance. This technology makes genuine equality within the global Women's Movement a more readily achievable goal.

The immediate challenge for the international Women's Movement is to mobilize and take the lead in building a new political order better suited to a world already being reshaped by globalization. New institutions--if they result from a process in which women are integrally involved--are likely to serve the cause of equality and other fundamental human rights much more effectively than the current institutions of political power. Despite tremendous efforts and steady gains, women are still largely unrepresented in government institutions. There are just a few countries in which women hold the highest political office, and only a few in which women have more than 30 percent representation in the legislature. At this writing, women in Kuwait are still denied the right to vote on the grounds of their sex. The pressure that globalization exerts on traditional structures offers an external catalyst for possible sweeping reform, one that would not otherwise be within the short-term scope of possibility. Rather than watch the status quo transfer established patriarchal dynamics to new (even less democratic) methods of control, the global Women's Movement can provide an alternative vision of power, offer a response to globalization that draws on its strengths, and welcome a world without borders.

Such international solidarity may be the only force capable of heading off the harms of globalization. Rather than suffer the manipulation of capital flight, for example--the threat of which is used to keep wages in sweatshops around the world to below subsistence levels--a new political order could institute a global minimum wage. Such action is impossible in the current structure because political power as exercised through the nation-state system is sufficiently controlled by undemocratic forces; such forces suppress the galvanizing of political will necessary to forge fundamental social change. To date, international solidarity has, ironically, done more for the private sector than the public good. Negotiations on sovereign indebtedness, for instance, are held country by country, in each case with an international consortium of the commercial bank creditors. The bankers know they're more powerful as a united bloc, and they act accordingly. The governments--because they are unable to organize collectively and unable to divide and conquer the banks individually--are themselves divided and conquered in this process, all at the expense of the people they represent.

Like "democracy," "globalization" is a slippery word, wearing different meanings in theory and in reality. The current reality of globalization is dangerous, yet the theory is alive with promise. The political uncertainties of transition sparked by globalization provide a moment of opportunity: to take and redefine power. Channels of mass communication are more international, more accessible, and more democratic than ever before. They can be used to replace transnational exploitation with global cooperation, to effect the redistribution of resources rather than further the concentration of wealth. Mobilizing transnational solidarity among like-minded citizens of the world is both an expression of the power to create and the ultimate protection from the power to control.

Just imagine:

  • Women in Peru send out word that structural adjustment is driving them deeper into poverty and destroying all community support structures. Media coverage of the impact of intervention by international financial institutions is followed by mass transnational tax withholding in countries governing these institutions. The International Monetary Fund suspends the market-driven conditionality of its lending policies.

  • After every woman (and maybe some men) in every parliament of every country threatens to go on strike if democracy is not restored in Burma, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi takes her rightful place as duly elected head of state.

  • A clothing company in Texas starts a line of t-shirts for men imprinted "Wife Beater," including styles for children imprinted "Li'l Wife Beater." The shirts are advertised on www.wife-beaters.com for half-price with proof of a wife-beating conviction and can be customized with a bloodstain or cigarette burn. A bulletin goes out on www.womensenews.org, and the wife-beaters site is spontaneously bombarded by millions of hits from women's rights "hacktivists." The site folds.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948, set forth a vision of life in which health, education, housing, employment, and respect for the dignity of all persons are fundamental human rights to which everyone is entitled without distinction. The UN hasn't done justice to this vision, allowing it instead to degenerate to the lowest common denominator of political discourse. Globalization could be the new force replacing that lowest common denominator with a concept of collective action greater, rather than less, than the sum of its parts. Globalization could be the force capable of doing justice to the vision of the UDHR--or it could be the force capable of the entire destruction of the planet. It's up to us.

This has been made even clearer (and more urgent) since the events of September 11, 2001, which dramatically illustrated the political transformation caused by globalization, and which accelerated the need for radical reform. The world war currently underway at this writing began with the Taliban providing some semblance of a state target in Afghanistan. But with the removal of the Taliban from power, there is no state left on the other side of this war--a war alternately against Al Qaeda (a non-governmental entity), or more generically against "terrorism," which has no defined or recognizable sovereign structure. Geographical boundaries bear little if any relation to this new kind of war, which is potentially more dangerous and destructive than any of its predecessors. The stakes are higher than ever, and the need for a new collective concept of security is urgent. What's more, the hunger for information and active agency among ordinary people is growing. That many Americans took a greater interest in foreign affairs post-9/11 did not surprise foreign-policy experts--but such experts were shocked that this interest persisted more than nine months later. As a direct result of citizen action, a rapid exchange of private cell-phone calls on 9/11 led to the diversion of one hijacked plane from its intended target of destruction--citizen action that was much faster and more efficient than the multi-trillion-dollar defense industry. A few weeks later, a concerned passenger, sitting in an airplane seat near a shoe-bomber, was willing to take action on a moment's notice, thus saving lives. Such citizen activism is worth a lot more security than the x-ray screening of every traveler's shoes, or the proposed mass suspension (or subtler erosion) of civil liberties.
Saving the planet--and ourselves--really is up to us.

Jessica Neuwirth is a founder and current President of the Board of Directors of Equality Now, an international women's rights organization based in New York and Nairobi. She holds a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School and a BA in Medieval History from Yale. From 1985-1990, she worked for Amnesty International, eventually serving as the first Chair of AI-USA's Women and Human Rights Task Force, and has practiced international law, specializing in international finance for developing countries. She has also served as a Legal Officer for the UN Administrative Tribunal and as a Consultant to the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on sexual- violence charges in several cases--including the landmark case of Akayesu, which set forth a definition of rape in international law and a finding that rape constitutes a form of genocide.

Suggested Further Reading:
Askin, Kelly D., & Dorean M. Koenig, eds. Women and International Human Rights Law. New York: Transnational Publishers, 2000.

French, Hilary F. Vanishing Borders: Protecting the Planet in the Age of Globalization. Washington, DC: Worldwatch, 2000.

Hancock, Graham. Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992.

Wallach, Lori, and Michelle Sforz, Ralph Nader (Preface). Whose Trade Organization? Corporate Globalization and the Erosion of Democracy. Washington, DC: Public Citizen, 1999.

Sources for information on the international Women's Movement and for global feminist activism: Equality Now (www.equalitynow.org), Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (www.catwinternational.org), The Feminist Majority Foundation (www.feminist.org), The Sisterhood Is Global Institute (www.sigi.org), V-Day (www.vday.org), Women's Environment and Development Organization (www.wedo.org), Women Living Under Muslim Laws (www.wluml.org).

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

Copyright © 2003 by Robin Morgan


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